Tim Lincecum's whirlwind career took another surprising turn on Saturday night when he threw a 148-pitch no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. Lincecum walked four and hit a batter, but he whiffed 13 en route to his first career no-hitter.
Pablo Sandoval made a terrific defensive play on a grounder up the third-base line to end the seventh, and Hunter Pence made a diving catch to preserve the no-hitter in the eighth. Carlos Quentin hit the hardest ball of the night for the Padres in the sixth, but he lined it right into the glove of shortstop Brandon Crawford.
Other than those three plays and Lincecum's bouts of wildness, he looked like his former dominant self. He flashed three terrific secondary pitches throughout the game, including his famous devastating changeup. His curveball was outstanding, and his slider was equally effective.
His fastball velocity was around 89-91 mph, which is where it's been all season. He mixed his pitches well to keep the Padres off-balance and flailing all evening. They swung and missed 29 times against Lincecum, most coming against his assortment of disappearing off-speed stuff.
The question now is whether or not Lincecum is back for good. He's almost certainly never going to be the pitcher he was during the 2008 and 2009 seasons when he won back-to-back Cy Young Awards.
He went 33-12 with a 2.55 ERA and 526 strikeouts over 452.1 innings during that stretch. He was without a doubt the best pitcher on the planet.
Lincecum wasn't quite as good during the next two seasons, but he was still the undisputed ace of the Giants staff and one of the best pitchers in the game. He helped the Giants win their first World Series since moving to San Francisco during the 2010 season. He pitched the clinching game of the World Series that season, and he also delivered a dominant performance in Game 1 of the NLDS.
From 2010-2011, Lincecum went 29-24 with a 3.08 ERA and 451 strikeouts in 429.1 innings. He finished in the top 10 in the Cy Young voting both seasons.
Last year, it suddenly all came apart for Lincecum. He went 10-15 while leading the National League in walks and wild pitches and finishing with a 5.18 ERA, by war the worst of his career.
He lost his spot in the postseason rotation, and he wasn't very good in a spot start. However, he pitched extremely well out of the bullpen to help the Giants win their second title in three years.
When Lincecum struggled as a starter to open the 2013 season, one club source told Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area that the Giants would move Lincecum to the bullpen "in a heartbeat" if they had another starter available.
Alas, it doesn't look like Lincecum will be going to the bullpen after his no-hitter. The numbers show that he's back to being the above-average starter he was during 2010 and 2011.
Lincecum posted a 3.64 ERA in April and a 3.60 ERA in June around a disastrous May (6.37 ERA). His ERA after the no-hitter is down to 4.26 on the season.
However, his Fielding Independent Pitching line (FIP)—an ERA estimator based on strikeout, walk and home run rates—is nearly a full run lower at 3.35, which is almost identical to where it was in 2010 and 2011.
Over his last three starts, Lincecum has struck out 32 in 21.1 innings.
He's been a much better pitcher than his ERA has indicated over the past two years. In 2012, his 4.18 FIP was a full run lower than his 5.18 ERA. Thus, he was never quite as bad as he appeared to be.
He entered play on Saturday with the 29th-best FIP in baseball. He still has excellent stuff, even though his fastball no longer touches 95 mph like it once so easily did. He has three above-average secondary pitches and enough velocity to keep opponents guessing. Even as his speed has diminished, opposing hitters have kept swinging and missing.
The pitcher known as "The Freak" continues to mesmerize. His no-hitter was the latest turn in what has been an amazing career despite some of his struggles over the last two seasons.
In a certain sense, Lincecum is back, and the Giants desperately need him in order to begin to salvage their season.